Migratory bird marathons to get longer due climate change

April 15, 2009

Migratory birds have an amazing ability to grow muscles before their flights by eating a lot but without hard training. Imagine being able to copy that — get in shape by lounging on the sofa gorging yourself for weeks and then run a marathon.

But there are signs that birds will be in trouble in future because climate change will shift their breeding grounds further north in Europe, according to a study of European warblers today. (for a story, click here) Wintering grounds in Africa or southern Europe are unlikely to move so much.

That means, for instance, that whitethroats (above right) that fly from south of the Sahara Desert to Europe and back twice a year may have to travel an extra 400 km (250 miles) towards the end of the century, on top of a one-way trip that can already be up to 6,000 km.

The birds may need new protected areas for stopovers in southern Europe where they can refuel on bugs, according to the scientists, led by Stephen Willis of Durham University in England.

Flying thousands of km twice a year is a gigantic test and the extra few hundred km could be the difference between life and death, Willis told me.

Birds have of course adapted before — to Ice Ages or the drying of the Sahara thousands of years ago. But will they be able to do so again as climate change adds to other pressures, such as a loss of habitats to farmland or cities?

(Photo: Sue Tranter, copyright RSPB Images)

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